FBI Warns Senators of China Recruiters Stealing US Technology

November 21, 2019 Updated: November 21, 2019

The FBI warned the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee about proven national security and economic risks from China recruiting Americans to steal key technology.

FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence Division John Brown stated on Nov. 19: “The Communist government of China has proven that it will use any means necessary to advance its interests at the expense of others, including the United States, and pursue its long-term goal of being the world’s superpower by 2049.”

The warning was supported with the release of a U.S. Senate staff report to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations titled: “Threats to the U.S. Research Enterprise: China’s Talent Recruitment Plans.” The unclassified 105-page threat assessment stresses that the Chinese government recognizes that economic strength and scientific innovation are the keys to global influence and military power.

The FBI highlighted that Beijing’s strategy is “to acquire our technology—often in the early stages of development—as well as our expertise, to erode our competitive advantage and supplant the United States as a global superpower.”

The report details that China has often engaged in espionage in support of achieving its goals. But its intelligence agencies are also making extensive use of so-called “nontraditional collectors.” The actions of these individuals may not rise to the traditional level of criminality associated with “spying,” but the handlers for nontraditional collectors are often spies tasked to collect information sought by the Chinese regime.

To attain its lofty goal of becoming the global leader in science and technology by 2050, China from 2008 to 2020 committed to spend 15 percent of its gross domestic product, or about $2 trillion, on improving human resources.

China has implemented a “whole-of-government” campaign to recruit talent and foreign experts from around the world. Unlike open international research collaborations by the United States and other Western nations to advance basic science, China’s science and technology investments specifically prioritize advancement of national security interests.

China sets industrial and security priorities in “Five-Year Plans” that include detailed outlines for expert recruitment programs known as “talent plans.” Chinese recruiters are authorized to dangle lucrative financial and research benefits to recruit individuals or research teams working and studying outside of China who possess access to, or expertise in, high-priority research fields.

The Chinese Communist Party plays the key role in selecting the over 200 talent recruitment plans—the most prominent of which is referred to as “Thousand Talents Plan” (TTP). First launched in 2008, the TTP offers incentives for individuals engaged in U.S. research and development to transmit such knowledge to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space, and other financial incentives.

“While mere participation in a talent plan is not illegal,” the Senate report warns that some transfers have resulted in violations of U.S. laws, including espionage, theft of trade secrets, and grant fraud. Such talent plans can “violate conflict-of-interest policies put in place by American research institutions or federal grant agencies—particularly if talent plan participants failed to disclose all of their sources of funding.”

The Senate Investigative report documents that U.S. federal agencies have discovered talent recruitment plan members “downloading sensitive electronic research files before leaving to return to China, submitted false information when applying for grant funds, and willfully failed to disclose receiving money from the Chinese government on U.S. grant applications.”

Chinese talent plan participants are also required to sign contracts outlining work that may mirror the research they perform at U.S. institutions. Such contract relationships bind “talent” to Chinese government law that strictly protects China’s economic right to all patents and other intellectual property developed during work within the talent plan.

Assistant Director Brown disclosed that with American taxpayers contributing over $150 billion each year to scientific research, the FBI had teamed up with its 56 field offices to establish a centralized “National Counterintelligence Task Force.” The task force would work with American universities and private sector businesses in enforcing the law.

After a number of high-visibility arrests and prosecutions of members last year, the Chinese regime abruptly removed public information about these talent plan programs and their participants. Brown stated:

“The Chinese government’s abrupt concealment is not just an admission of the ulterior motives of their talent plans; viewed more broadly, it is yet another illustration of China’s lack of openness, fairness, and reciprocity, as contrasted with the behavior of free nations like the United States and our allies.”

Chriss Street is an expert in macroeconomics, technology, and national security. He has served as CEO of several companies and is an active writer with more than 1,500 publications. He also regularly provides strategy lectures to graduate students at top Southern California universities.

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